TAIPEI, Taiwan – China sent a record number of military aircraft toward the democratic self-ruled island of Taiwan, prompting the island’s Defense Ministry to warn Monday against what it called “destructive” harassment.
The previous daily record for Chinese military flights near Taiwan was 91 aircraft, on April 10.
Taiwan said it tracked 103 People’s Liberation Army aircraft that entered its air defense identification zone in the 24 hours to Monday morning.
None entered Taiwanese airspace.
This figure includes 40 planes that crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which once served as an informal border between both sides.
Dozens of other Chinese planes flew from the southern tip of Taiwan and veered part of the way along the island’s eastern coast, facing the Western Pacific.
A Taiwanese navy supply ship on a beach in Matsu, Taiwan, April 10, 2023. China has rejected calls to resume high-level talks with the United States, raising the risk of confrontation in disputed areas such as the Taiwan Strait. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
What we know
China has increased military flights around Taiwan every year since 2019.
In particular, Beijing has done so at times of tension over Taiwan’s high-level exchanges with the United States, the island’s most important political and security partner.
One of the last major increases came after Rep. Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Taiwan last year in a show of support for the island.
In 2020, Taiwan began publishing daily counts of the growing number of Chinese military aircraft entering its “air defense identification zone,” also called ADIZ, which is a buffer area much larger than Taiwan’s territorial airspace.
The number of People’s Liberation Army flights recorded by Taiwan grew from 972 in 2021 – the first full year in which Taiwan began regularly recording the numbers – to 1,737 last year, and 1,268 so far this year, including the Monday’s peak, said Ben Lewis, a military analyst who maintains a data set on the flights, using data from Taiwan’s Defense Ministry.
Chinese leaders have maintained for decades that they want to recover Taiwan peacefully, but do not exclude the use of force if they consider it necessary.
Increased Chinese military activity around Taiwan does not mean war is imminent.
China is also testing and eroding surveillance of the island, trying to wear down its military equipment and personnel, and reminding Taiwanese politicians and voters of Chinese military might.
The increased military presence in the skies and waters off Taiwan’s eastern coast also indicates China’s intention to dominate an expanse of sea that could be vital to the island’s defenses.
What China and Taiwan have said
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense warned that China’s “continued military harassment” could sharply raise tensions.
“We call on the authorities in Beijing to take responsibility and immediately end such destructive unilateral actions.”
At least so far, China has been relatively low-key about its recent military maneuvers and activities near Taiwan.
Last week, China held large-scale military exercises in the Western Pacific, including the deployment of an aircraft carrier and dozens of warships and warplanes, and made no announcement.
The expert’s opinion
Ou Si-fu, a researcher at the National Defense and Security Research Institute, said Monday’s record flights appeared to be directly aimed at putting pressure on Taiwan, which has sought to develop ties with the United States.
The flights appear to indicate “China’s dissatisfaction with recent progress in strengthening military, economic and trade cooperation between Taiwan and the United States,” Ou said.
Others saw a more generic motivation.
“This is more of a routine exercise by the Chinese Communist Party to demonstrate the ability of its military aircraft to perform long-distance missions,” said Chieh Chung, a security analyst at the National Policy Foundation in Taipei.
“This is not necessarily specifically politically motivated.”
China may be silent about the exercises because it is trying to stabilize relations with the United States, Chieh said. Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, met with Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, over the weekend and stressed that the Taiwan issue was a “red line” for China.
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